Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) – also known as shock treatment – is arguably one of the most polarising issues in mental health. From suggestions that ECT is barbaric, to claims of its effectiveness, the treatment has always caused debate.

There are several strands to this debate, and it is still something that even in the modern day, scientists do not agree on. While the days of ECT being heavily used are gone, it is still in use for psychiatric conditions.

In the modern day, ECT is generally used as a last resort in treatment – typically when all other efforts have been exhausted. Some people find ECT works wonders, while others are more sceptical.

What is ECT?

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT): Electroconvulsive Therapy (commonly referred to as shock treatment) is a treatment that sees an electric current sent through the brain of an individual. The aim is to trigger an epileptic seizure, with the ultimate objective to relieve symptoms of a mental health problem. The human body is fully restrained during the procedure, which also involves a general anaesthetic. Electroconvulsive therapy is normally a last resort. Despite this, ECT actually has an impressive efficacy rate, with many people finding it helps immeasurably.

A difficult history

Without doubt, ECT has a rather checkered history. Several decades ago, ECT was roundly used. This inevitably resulted in several patients being forced into ECT.

Worse yet, in those days, muscle relaxants and anaesthetics weren’t mainstream, causing the person to violently jerk and be in pain. Many report having to be physically restrained.

The depiction of ECT in the media has also contributed to negative public opinion. Whenever ECT is shown on TV or in film, we typically see a wailing patient being physically restrained.

The most famous example is the classic film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where one of the characters is forced into ECT, which is shown to be carried out in a cruel manner.

Other issues include the fact that ECT was used as a treatment for perceived conditions like homosexuality, which in the modern day is correctly recognised as being natural.

Moreover a British study in 2005 found that around half of ECT patients surveyed did not believe that they had been given sufficient information regarding the procedure before having it [1].

In reality though, ECT is a rather calm procedure, with the patient sedated for it. And unless a patient is seen as a danger to themselves or others, they will not be forced into the procedure.

Despite this, ECT continues to be stigmatised by society, with most unaware of the true nature of ECT. Unfortunately, many are still guided by what they see in the media.

Doctors don’t know how it works

Surely the biggest problem with ECT is that Doctors, Scientists and researchers cannot come to a consensus on how it works.

After all this time and technological advancements, we still aren’t sure how ECT has the effect that it does. As a result, many are reluctant to use it.

Many health professionals also point to the high chance of side effects – such as memory loss or confusion. While these are normally short-term occurrences, they can be permanent on rare occasions.

It seems that ECT is able to almost “reset” dopamine and norepinephrine levels, which are chemicals that are related to the regulation of mood, emotion and thinking.

But ECT seems effective

Despite all the supposed negatives of ECT, the statistics behind its effectiveness are actually rather impressive. Most people need 6-10 treatments over a period of 3-5 weeks.

For those that haven’t responded to numerous medications or talking therapy, ECT can be a source of potential relief.

Studies largely point to ECT being an effective tool against long-standing mental health problems. This is especially the case when treating someone with severe depression.

ECT is also an effective way of helping a person out of the state of catatonia, or if they are in the midst of a manic episode, or are enduring a psychotic episode.

But many people relapse in the future, meaning they need to return for treatment months later. ECT may need to take place on a long-term basis.


Many argue that the risks involved with ECT make its use more risky than it is worth.

But others have found ECT to be an excellent treatment that saves them from severe mental illness when other treatments have failed to work.

The debate on whether or not ECT should be used is likely to continue for several years to come, with most continuing to be split in their opinion on it.

See Also


This website should be used purely for informational purposes, and does not intend to, nor should it ever, be used as a replacement for professional medical advice.

We strive to keep all of our pages updated, and ensure that our website is full of factual and in-depth information. However, we encourage you to browse this website with care.

As a reminder, this website and all content within it cannot and should not replace the advice of a trained medical professional. You can read our full disclaimer at this link.


If you are struggling with your mental health, help is available. With the right support and treatment, you can make a recovery. For information on helplines, or if you are in a state of crisis, please visit our crisis page by clicking on the relevant link for your geographical location (United Kingdom), (United States), (International). You can also see how to get mental health treatment and the process involved by clicking this link.


[1] Rose, D., Wykes, T., Bindman, J., & Fleischmann, P. (2005). Information, consent and perceived coercion: patients’ perspectives on electroconvulsive therapy. British Journal of Psychiatry. 186: p54-59.